Data Analysis Guides Susquehanna River Restoration Efforts
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to more than 18 million people and 3,600 species of plants and animals. The watershed—spanning over 64,000 square miles and covering parts of Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia—faces many complex challenges. Perhaps the most significant challenge is the degradation of water quality due to excess sediment, nutrients, and other pollutants that enter the Bay through its myriad of tributaries.
One group, Chesapeake Conservancy, is dedicated to protecting the natural resources of the Chesapeake Bay for current and future generations. Based in Annapolis, Maryland, this nonprofit works closely with national, state, and local partners to improve water quality across the Bay.
One of the Conservancy's initiatives focuses on the Susquehanna River, the largest source of freshwater to the Bay. The river pours an estimated 20 billion gallons of freshwater into the Bay daily. This initiative, called Implementing Precision Conservation in the Susquehanna River, is an ongoing effort in partnership with several local groups to pilot new, data-driven approaches to maximize the effectiveness of restoration practices and improve the health of the river.
As part of the Precision Conservation initiative, the Conservancy's geospatial team, the Conservation Innovation Center (CIC), is implementing new data analytics tools to guide conservation and outreach efforts at the heart of the Susquehanna River watershed in central Pennsylvania. The CIC is a group of 12 staff members who leverage the latest geospatial technologies to carry out the Conservancy's mission.
Emily Mills, geospatial project manager for the CIC, set out to conduct a parcel-scale prioritization of four counties in central Pennsylvania to identify the top areas for restoration projects. One type of restoration project of particular interest is the planting of riparian forest buffers. These areas of trees, shrubs, and grasses adjacent to water bodies are the last defense to intercept and treat sediment- and nutrient-laden runoff before it enters nearby streams.
Additionally, stream-side vegetation stabilizes the stream bank by reducing erosion during storm events and provides important wildlife habitat. The analysis conducted by Mills and the CIC sought to use data to identify areas where riparian forest buffers were lacking and prioritize them for restoration based on their potential to reduce pollution and improve water quality.
Prioritizing restoration opportunity
Emily Mills, Geospatial Project Manager for Conservation Innovation Center (CIC)
The CIC needed to narrow down thousands of parcels across four counties to evaluate where restoration efforts have an impact on water quality.
ArcGIS Insights allowed Mills and the team to quickly and easily make sense of the prioritized restoration data to focus their efforts.
To date, over 20 restoration organizations in the region including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, local nonprofits, and others are using data and tools created by the Conservancy to guide restoration efforts.
To accomplish this, Mills and her team developed high-resolution land-cover and hydrography datasets that allowed them to see exactly where trees were present and, more importantly, where trees were absent from areas adjacent to waterways. The team also assessed the upslope landscape to get an idea of just how much and where pollution is coming off the landscape.
All this information helped the CIC create a system that prioritized parcels for possible restoration opportunities based on criteria like pollution reduction potential and cost-effectiveness of planting trees. However, after scoring over 6,000 parcels in the region, the CIC was still left with hundreds of parcels that were a high priority for restoration.
To narrow these down and develop achievable restoration goals, Mills needed a tool that would allow her to leverage spatial and statistical analyses to focus on the highest-priority parcels, connect with landowners interested in restoration, and summarize the data for landowners in a meaningful way.
"Spatial analysis is mission-critical for our organization because it allows us to better target and implement on-the-ground conservation practices. The 'where' aspect of our efforts helps us determine the impact of our actions and make good decisions," says Mills.
At the recent Esri User Conference, Mills saw demonstrations of ArcGIS Insights, a software package that allows users to explore spatial and nonspatial data in an interactive interface and share results in an easy and effective way. Mills was impressed by the capabilities of ArcGIS Insights and wanted to apply it to the CIC's conservation work.
She later attended an ArcGIS Insights training class in Philadelphia, which allowed her to further explore the tool with tutorials and hands-on help from instructors.
"The training was super helpful, just being there with my own data and being able to follow along and ask questions," says Mills. "ArcGIS Insights was something new and exciting, and I saw the potential to apply it to a lot of our work."
Mills brought back what she learned in Philadelphia and trained other CIC team members on how to use ArcGIS Insights. She says the process was simple, and sharing data and results with colleagues and partners was easy with ArcGIS Insights.
"I think ArcGIS Insights is great because of the spatial component. You can summarize your data in graphs and spreadsheets, but the ability to interact with it spatially at the same time is what I find really attractive," Mills says.
ArcGIS Insights allowed Mills and the team to quickly and easily make sense of the prioritized restoration opportunity data. She explains that a big part of what they needed to understand was where a particular restoration project stood relative to the other high-priority projects. The ability to summarize the data in different ways, like by county or regions of interest, enabled them to explore the options further.
"The geographic scope of our analysis was four counties, but sometimes one county, or even a region within it, may have more or better opportunities than the others due to environmental conditions. So, being able to quickly examine the data from these different angles really helped us target our outreach efforts to get the most effective restoration practices in the ground," says Mills.
From improving efficiency to boosting communications, ArcGIS Insights is yielding positive results for the CIC.
Easy access to key information streamlines their daily work and eliminates the need to shift between multiple software packages. With ArcGIS Insights, the CIC team members can seamlessly link maps, cards, and graphics, allowing them to analyze data dynamically and make informed decisions faster.
"Having everything in one spot with ArcGIS Insights is great. I think it makes it easier than traditional GIS platforms to see the patterns in your data that may be harder to find otherwise," Mills says.
The spatial capabilities of ArcGIS Insights allowed Mills to narrow down thousands of parcels across the four counties to less than 100 parcels where restoration would have an enormous impact on water quality.
The summarization and reporting features in ArcGIS Insights help the CIC quantify the potential impact of restoration projects and communicate this to Precision Conservation partners. According to Mills, setting goals, tracking progress, communicating impacts to partners, and developing future goals are easier than ever with ArcGIS Insights.
To date, over 20 restoration organizations in the region including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, state agencies, local nonprofits, and others are using data and tools created by the Conservancy to guide restoration efforts. Chesapeake Conservancy has partnered with these groups to restore over 70 acres of riparian forest buffer.
Mills sees a lot of potential uses in other areas of the Chesapeake Conservancy's work as well, including project planning and analysis for other initiatives around the Chesapeake Bay watershed. ArcGIS Insights will continue to support the Conservancy's efforts to keep the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay healthy for years to come.
The excitement and the response from people that I share the results with have been great. ArcGIS Insights helps us tell a story that's interactive and dynamic.